How often have you been told to ‘look at the bright side’ of a terrible, terrible situation with really no bright side to it but a forced one? And how many times have you heeded that advice because of guilt that someone out there probably has it worse? How many times do you disallow yourself to feel pain and sorrow to focus on the positives instead? One too many times, I’m sure. That’s because the belief in unrealistic optimism and toxic positivity is so rampant around us, we don’t see how it plays a significant role in damaging us.
Don’t get us wrong; we’re not here to encourage you to be sad and depressed. We believe it is crucial to possess an optimistic outlook in life. But preferring an illusion over reality during a moment of crisis is foolish. Feeding your mind with positivity only can cause you to ‘overdose’ on it, which can negatively impact your mental health.
What is toxic positivity or unrealistic optimism? Let’s talk about it in detail.
Toxic positivity refers to the concept that one should always remain happy, optimistic, and have a ‘good vibes only’ approach in life. It favors the idea that negative human emotions like sadness, grief, and disappointment are corrupt sentiments that should typically be ignored or pushed aside, no matter how difficult an experience you encounter.
It is an overgeneralization of positive emotions. The belief is either imposed by others or upheld personally; that despite one’s emotional and psychological pain, focusing only on the good parts of life is enough to get one through it. It minimizes one’s struggles and negates their hardships, invalidating their suffering.
The problem with positivity culture is that it is an idealistic and impractical vision. It may sound great on paper, but it’s not a realistic approach. Humans are emotional creatures who feel both negative and positive emotions. To prevent yourself from feeling the negative emotions means you’re disallowing yourself to be human. It means invalidating your grief and your pain which can transform into self-inflicted emotional neglect. Mental health experts believe, not addressing your negative emotions can be detrimental to your emotional, spiritual, and mental health.
Negative human emotions such as grief, jealousy, anger, disgust, disappointment, and loneliness are natural healers that allow people to deal with and move past difficult circumstances in their own time. However, positivity culture considers them to be unwelcome sentiments and believes in remaining excessively optimistic no matter the situation.
Unfortunately, this is an ineffective method that only allows them to live in a fantasy, providing them temporary satisfaction and security. In truth, having a mindset that encourages unrealistic optimism means that the person is either afraid of facing the reality of their situation or has been forced to believe that their experience is insignificant and does not deserve acknowledgment as a traumatic experience.
Having an overly optimistic outlook in life leads to avoidance and denial. Denying your negative experiences, the privilege of acknowledgment strips you of your right to experience the full range of human emotions. Eventually, this transforms into a state of mind where there’s no room for feelings like sadness and worry whatsoever.
This can have a counterintuitive effect on one’s mental well-being as these unacknowledged trials and hardships accumulate overtime. Ultimately, these grievous feelings, falsely masked by insincere excessive optimism, can grow in intensity and often translate into behavioral issues, such as aggression, addiction, self-harm, dissociation, numbness, and extreme fear.
Research also suggests a strong connection between repressed emotions and poor mental health. Repressed emotions contribute to an increased risk of developing stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression, along with a likelihood of developing physical issues, such as heart diseases, ulcers, nausea, muscle tension, autoimmune disorders, and digestive problems, etc.
On the other hand, they can be a source of decline in confidence and self-esteem, increasing self-doubt, damaging your relationship with yourself. Ignoring your hardships, sorrows, and struggles can make you feel incomplete as a human because you can never truly feel complete unless you accept all of yourself, the good and the bad included. Therefore, it is crucial to acknowledge all of your emotions to maintain a healthy relationship with yourself.
Since self-love entails you love everything about yourself, and not just the good parts, it becomes hard to maintain a healthy connection with yourself when you’re feeling incomplete and forcing yourself to love a fabricated version of yourself.
Unrealistic optimism can take many forms. It can often sound like decent advice, and you may even find yourself offering it to others as a good gesture, oblivious to the fact that you’re contributing to the toxic positivity culture.
Toxic positivity can be a family member chastising you for voicing your concerns about your mental health. Or, it could be a friend telling you to have the ‘glass is half full’ mindset when you’re upset about getting low grades in an exam. It can also be someone telling you ‘you’ll get over it’ when you tell them about a breakup.
What they’re telling you to do might sound like good advice, but it’s really minimizing your struggles and denying you the experience of the full range of your emotions. Nobody should be telling you how to feel. Support looks like sympathy and understanding, along with faith in your ability to cope with that particular situation; not being told to feel a certain way or reminded that you could have had it worse.
If you ever find yourself in a position where you have to comfort someone who’s going through a difficult time, here’s what to say instead of these overly optimistic phrases:
SAY THIS INSTEAD
‘Look at the brighter side.’
‘I can’t imagine how tough this situation must be for you. I’m available if you want to talk and we can figure something out together.’
‘Everything happens for a reason.’
‘Some things are beyond our understanding. I know how frustrated you are right now, but I am sure it too will pass, and you’ll come out stronger than ever before.’
‘Just be positive.’
‘It’s natural to feel disappointed during a situation like this. You don’t always have to be strong.’
‘It could have been worse!’
‘I know this feels like the end, and I’m sorry that you have to deal with it, but I believe in you, and I know you’ll make it through this.’
‘You’ll get over it.’
‘I hope you know that I’m always here for you. You can talk to me and tell me how you feel.’
A positive outlook is crucial for a happy life. But, just like too much of anything can be harmful, too much optimism can also be damaging. Positivity turns into toxic optimism when it is used as a tool to feign good vibes. So what does one substitute unrealistic optimism with? Validation and hope.
How is validation different from positivity? Well, what toxic positivity culture does is; it makes your struggles seem insignificant. It negates your grief and convinces you that your experiences aren’t worth it. Phrases like ‘Just be happy’ or ‘Never give up!’ are toxic because they lack compassion. They sound impersonal and insincere, often making your experiences seem small.
On the other hand, validation and hope is when a person either understands you or is trying to understand your situation. Instead of handing out feeble reassurances, telling you to get over it, they give you validation that lets you acknowledge your sentiments so that you can heal on your own time. At the same time, validation and hope not only encourage you but also make you feel understood.
Most of the time, when someone is venting to you about their problems, they’re not looking for an inspirational quote to make them feel better. In fact, most of the time, they’re not asking you to make them feel better at all. They’re merely asking if the negative feelings they’re going through are normal. Your job here is to let them know that it’s natural to feel how they’re feeling and that you have faith that they can manage their way through it.
You may have guilt tied to your negative emotions because you’ve been conditioned to believe you’re ‘overreacting.’ But, feeling sad and depressed after losing someone important is normal. Disappointment after missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is natural. Feeling jealous because someone else has got what you want is also normal.
Toxic positivity culture has become a trend on social media. But, people aren’t aware of the risks it poses to a person’s health. It is high time we begin educating ourselves that unrealistic optimism is not the key to a healthy life. Masking your sorrow with happiness will only harm you in the long run. Sometimes, it’s okay to not be okay, so make sure you don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, not even yourself.